More than 70 years after a young Jewish art dealer hid a collection of Impressionist and Modernist masterpieces in a Paris bank vault in hopes that they would elude the grasp of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, the paintings will go up for auction.
Erich Slomovic, the Croatian-born assistant of legendary French art collector Ambroise Vollard, came into possession of the works in the summer of 1939, after Vollard was killed in a car crash.
With Europe careening toward World War II, Slomovic took 141 pieces, which included works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Casatt, Andre Derain and Pablo Picasso, and stowed them away in the vaults of Societe Generale.
He then fled to his native Yugoslavia but was eventually caught by the Germans and sent to the gas chambers, according to The Independent.
For more than three decades, the remarkable horde he had hidden from the Nazis gathered dust inside the bank vault. When officials finally opened the vault in 1979 and discovered what was inside, it sparked a monumental series of court battles as the Vollard and Slomovic families battled it out with competing claims to the artistic treasure trove, the paper reported.
“Now, more than 70 years after it was first hidden, the remarkable collection is to be sold in one of the biggest Modernist auctions of the year – the first time many of the works have been seen in public since the Second World War,” it added.
The lot with the largest price tag is a canvas painting by Derain, who spearheaded the short-lived Fauvist movement with his contemporary Henri Matisse. The pair used such bold colors in their works that they were quickly labeled “wild beasts” by critics of the time.
Arbres Collioure, seen above, a woodland landscape painted by Derain in southern France in 1905, has an estimated sale price of $13 million to $21.6 million, which would smash the previous record for a Derain painting, set last year in New York at $13.1 million.
Because of his untimely death, little is known of how Slomovic actually managed to get his hands on so much of Vollard’s collection, The Independent reported. Just before the war broke out, Vollard’s chauffeur-driven car skidded off the road, killing him and his driver. As war approached, Slomovic was put in charge of hiding the Vollard collection from the Nazis.
“In legal battles in the 1980s and 1990s, Slomovic’s heirs claimed Vollard gave the paintings to the young entrepreneur so he could launch a gallery in Belgrade. Many books and pictures in the collection were personally inscribed by Vollard, who also wrote letters of introduction for Slomovic to artists such as Pierre Bonnard and Georges Rouault,” the publication reported.
“But Vollard’s family argued that he gave the works to his business partner to sell on his behalf. The court cases dragged on for decades but were eventually settled in 2006, with the most of the art collection going to Vollard’s descendants. A much larger portion of the collection was taken by Slomovic to Yugoslavia, where he had hoped to set up an exhibition at the National Museum of Belgrade, in what is now Serbia,” The Independent reported.
“He was forced to flee once more when German forces invaded, hiding out in a village near the Yugoslav capital,” it added. “Eventually, Slomovic and his family were betrayed to the Nazis by locals and were packed off to a concentration camp. It is believed he was killed in a portable gas chamber in the summer of 1942. He was 27 years old.”
The paintings he had managed to take with him to Yugoslavia were successfully hidden by his relatives during the war, but were promptly seized by Marshal Tito’s communists and “gifted” to the Yugoslav state. More than 125 pieces, including a string of works by Degas and Renoir, are held by what is now the National Museum of Serbia.”
The pieces will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in late June.